Johnny Lennon… locked up for singing in his Saint Helena cell

Most weeks I get enquiries concerning information about the people of St Helena Penal Establishment. But this was the first one that asked about Johnny Lennon. Journalist Tony Moore had hear a rumor – that there was a prisoner called John Lennon who was known for his singing and was punished for it. It seemed the inaugural band The Beatles has a link to St Helena Island! Amazingly, it was more than a rumor. Tony was right.

Johnny Lennon. Admission 1: Administration Number 281, 2 years Hard Labour. Admitted to St Helena P.E. February 27th 1871 and transferred to Brisbane Gaol May 27 1872. Admission 2: Administration Number 363. Transferred back to St Helena P.E. 5 June 1872. Source: HM Penal Establishment-Register of Male Prisoners Admitted 1867-1886, Qld State Archives ID 92272

Johnny Lennon wasn’t THE John Lennon because he lived 100 years before his English namesake. I did some more research, trying to find Queensland’s Johnny Lennon’s wider story – who was he, where did he hail from, what details and motivation could be found for the crime? And after a few conversations , Tony Moore was able to put together a great story in the Brisbane Times in June 2020. Click on the link below to read Tonys story of Queensland’s singing Johnny Lennon:

Punished for singing, John Lennon served three days solitary in Brisbane jail

As an Aboriginal man, there are large gaps in what we know about his life, as Aboriginal people’s specific, personal details are rarely recorded at this time. We have no sense of which language group or country he hailed from and we don’t know how he received the name Johnny Lennon. At this time, many, many indigenous men were given the names Johnny, Paddy, Sandy and Jimmy, which means it is harder to know you have the correct individual. It also means that indigenous men became a homogenised, anglicised group of people who faded into society’s background.

I only know Johnny Lennon from court transcriptions while he was sentenced for Burglary and from his admission and punishment sheets in the gaol. When you do something wrong, it seems history will record it! For stealing ‘stolen two gold rings, a brooch, a meerschaum pipe, two penknives, a tweed coat, linen trousers, and two razors, from the house of Philip Bray, of Rockhampton,‘ I was surprised to see that Johnny Lennon nearly got a life sentence. He has no record before this and joked that he must have been very drunk on the night, yet indigenous men were often given the full extent of punishment. Luckily:

His Honor in passing sentence told prisoner he might sentence him to imprisonment for life, but hoped the sentence about to be inflicted would be a caution to him. Prisoner was then sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour in Brisbane Gaol.

Punishment: 12 October 1871 – Johnny Lennon. Smoking in ward and disobedience of orders. 3 days Solitary Confinement by the Superintendent. Source: Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, Qld State Archives

Johnny was transferred from Brisbane Gaol to St Helena P.E in February 1871. What I know about him is that he is a smoker, as he was charged with both concealing a pipe (one week’s tobacco stopped) and smoking on the ward (3 days Solitary Confinement). He is also someone who, just like The Beatles, liked singing and for this he was charged. Fellow Prisoner William Reed was given 7 days Solitary confinement for dancing in his cell on the same day, so it seems they were both in need of some fun in their day.

12 December 1871 – Johnny Lennon. Singing in his cell. Reprimanded by the Visiting Justice Barron. Source: H.M Penal Establishment St Helena – Depositions Book 1867 to 1886, Qld State Archives.

Once Johnny Lennon was released, he fades into history again, only to be remembered 90 years later when his namesake in England becomes famous for singing.

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